In Conversation: Michael J Malone and SJI Holliday
It is festival season again. Harrogate has been and gone, Bute Noir beckons and Bloody Scotland looms large. Exciting times if you can make it along to see some of your favourite authors chatting about their craft. However, if you cannot make it to a festival it can be damned frustrating knowing you are missing the fun.
I decided I would try to recreate a festival type conversation by inviting some of my favourite authors to chat about their books (with me lurking in the background). The first Conversation I hosted was between SJI Holliday and JS Law, It cannot have been too traumatic for Susi as today I am delighted be able to welcome her back – this time to chat with Ayrshire’s own Michael J Malone.
We kicked off our chat just as Susi’s second book, Willow Walk, was released:
S – Well, yes. It’s an odd one. In many ways, it’s just as exciting, especially when I really love this book and am getting so many fantastic reviews, but it IS different. I’m doing a lot more physical launch stuff this time – last week I had two library events as well as the London launch, this week I’m signing books all over the place, as well as having events in Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh. I feel like I am talking more about the book, rather than the many blog posts and Q&A type things I did with Black Wood. I hope it will always be exciting when a new book comes out – after all, it is the product of many months of hard work – but it definitely feels a bit different. I’m no longer a debut! Do readers expect more from me now? Do they have higher expectations? Possibly. What do you think, Michael – does each new book release feel different from the last?
M – Yeah, I’ve been impressed by how well organised you seem for this book, Susi. And you are spot on. Gone are the days when the writer could sit back in their garret – starving or otherwise – and wait for the reader to find them. There are SO many books and so many other diversions it really does help if you haul ass and get yourself in front of readers.
To answer your question – does each book feel different? Kinda. I don’t think anything will match the excitement of that first book release. And family and friends rally round for the first one ‘cos this is new and exciting. For subsequent books? Not so much. Now I can sense the suppressed yawn – oh, you’ve got another book out? With the subtext, shit I have to fork out another £8.99.
But like you, for subsequent books which have all gone through the hate it/ love it/ what the hell am I doing publishing this piece of crap, process – when it comes to the pub date I am mostly pleased with how it turned out and excited/ fearful to find out what readers will make of it.
Having gone the distance and completing your first novel, Susi did you feel more confident in the writing of Willow Walk?
S – Well, I don’t know if ‘more confident’ is how I felt. Certainly not initially! I think I started about six different books after Black Wood. All abandoned at about 20k. Some I may go back to, some not. I think I thought that writing the second book would be easier, and it was – eventually – once I’d worked out which book that was! I’m more confident with the final product though, more willing to take the praise (and more accepting of negative feedback, of which, thankfully, there has been very little!) The problem for me (if you can call it a problem) is too many ideas… is that the same for you Michael? Are you always writing the next book in your head?
M – Too many ideas? I wish that was a problem for me. I’ve now completed ten novels and after each one I’ve been left feeling certain that I will NEVER manage to do it again. The well is completely dry. I’m rung out and apart from the feeling I’m finished and about to be found out, I am completely devoid of ideas.
But my teeth are long (see what I did there?) and I now know that this feeling is temporary – writer’s block is for those who don’t have a mortgage after all – and a situation/ character/ idea will be thrown up from my sub-conscious eventually.
So, do you have a wee stash of ideas, Susi? I am SO envious. How does it start for you then? Situation/ character/ theme etc?
S – I’m thinking of selling some ideas. I’ll let you know once I’ve worked out a price. I’ll never be able to write them all. I always say I will write a book of prologues… I’m always really excited about the start of a book, the story all ready to come out. Then I realise it’s not ready at all, and it’s back to the drawing board!
It’s always a situation, I think. I very rarely think of a character first. I just seem to constantly absorb ideas. I love people watching and listening to people’s conversations. Sometimes a friend or a family member will say something completely random, and it sparks off a reaction in my head. I always seem to turn the most simple situations into something dark and mysterious. What’s that line in the Simon and Garfunkel song (America?) “She says the man in the gaberdine suit is a spy… he says be careful his bowtie is really a camera…” That’s me. Take the normal, and twist it!
Problem with too many ideas though, is that they can stop you from focussing on your current project. I try to keep them in check by emailing myself “Idea: XXX” and then whenever I think of things for that idea, I reply to that email. I’ve got hundreds of these in my email folders now!
Do you find writing easy, Michael? Do you manage to stay focussed and on track?
M – The Book of Prologues – sounds like something from the Bible. I like how John Connolly describes it – the tyranny of new ideas. It could be easy to jump from one exciting new idea to another, like some excited jumpy thing. Thankfully, I managed to take my very first novel idea to completion.
Do I find writing easy? To paraphrase (and distort) what King Kenny was reported to have said – sometimes aye, sometimes naw. There are LOTS of days when writing feels like wading through a mental treacle. And some days where hours pass in moments.
But I do stay focused on an idea until I’ve carried it through to those two little words – The End. (Is there anything sweeter in the writers’ lexicon?) A benefit, perhaps, of not having very many new ideas.
G – What I am getting here is the feeling Michael sets out to tell a story and sticks with it until he works it into shape.
Susi, you seem to be the polar opposite. Loads of threads and possibilities but you need to find the one? Are the parked ideas ever salvaged to be merged into the story you are writing?
Am also keen to know if you can both keep your individual books ring-fenced in your head. I will need to explain that I think. As you both have recurring characters and locations can you promote and discuss one title and be confident you are not slipping into plot threads from a different book?
With regards to the different characters and recurring characters and books – I find myself talking about Black Wood and Willow Walk simultaneously when I am doing appearances. Mainly because they are linked by certain things, the setting, the policeman. But they are very separate books and I want people to see them that way. You don’t have to read them in order – it’s not a ‘proper’ series like that, but writing the third is challenging as I am feeling the pressure to tie up a few things and make references to things that have happened in books 1 and 2.
To be honest, I am very excited about book 4, which is a standalone, with a very different setting, new characters and a different style. I feel I need that big change after writing 3 set in a small town. I’m excited about Michael’s next one, which is a big departure from his (brilliant) series.
How does that feel, Michael? Was it difficult to move on from your series characters? (Not saying that there won’t be another in the series, as I have a sneaking suspicion that there is). What do you prefer? Same world, or something new?
M – A Suitable Lie (thanks for the chance to throw in a wee plug, Susi) comes out in September and as you say, that’s a departure from my usual crime stuff. There’s no cops and no robbers – but a dark situation within a family.
It wasn’t difficult to move away from the series, in fact it was quite liberating. (I also did this between books 2 and 3 when I went off and wrote The Guillotine Choice) I have plans to come back to it but I also need a break. I’m full of admiration for writers like Rankin who can stay with the same characters and keep it fresh after all these years. I’m not sure I could manage that. And it is great to examine new characters and new situations and feel your way into another, very different world.
Having said that, when I have a break and come back to McBain and O’Neill, there’s something pleasing, almost comforting about it. It’s like putting your favourite slippers on, having a drink of your favourite tipple and meeting up with a close friend you haven’t seen for ages – all at the same time. I KNOW these people. I know what makes them tick and the fresh challenge is to come up with a situation that has them hanging over the edge all over again. (Laughs like a maniac).
What for you is the challenge of writing connected books, Susi? (See how I resisted called it a series?)
S – The challenge is remembering all the things you’re supposed to remember… Lee Child has got this sussed – he puts Reacher’s vital statistics on the opening page of every single book. I struggle to remember what colour of eyes I’ve given people, or hair, or what they wear… I get round this by being deliberately vague, so that the reader can see the character how they want to see them, thus avoiding that tricky issue of using the vertically challenged Tom Cruise to play your 6ft 5″ hero for the on-screen adaptation! I’ve heard of people saying they keep notebooks on various things that have happened in previous books in their series. I’m not organised enough to do that (mainly because I don’t really see my series as a series!) but I’m just finishing off book 3, and I’ve got a big note next to my compute saying REMEMBER THE CAT!!!! I nearly forgot him, despite that. Poor old Cadbury has a very minor role in this one (but no, I’m not going to kill him!) I’ve got other random notes stuck around the place too, like QUINN SMELLS OF CHIPS and CHANGE ALL THE NAMES!! But that’s another story…
So here’s my next question for you, Michael… what do you do when you finish writing a book? Do you have any celebratory rituals? Do you take a break, or dive right into the next one?
Yeah – I’m not that organised either. In my very first book (as yet unpublished) my main character had a dog. Said dog had completely disappeared by the end of the book.
And back to your question – do I have a ritual? Not officially. Maybe I should start one, cos that would be better than the emotional mix I tend to inhabit. It’s one part relief, a dash of excitement, a large pinch of worry that what I’ve written is crap, and all of that is liberally sprinkled with the certainty that I will never ever ever manage to write another book again.
I then have a break, catch up on my reading and when doing so fall into that trap of comparison (don’t do it, writers) convince myself that EVERYONE is much better than me and I’m wasting my time. But then imperceptibly the itch starts up again. And I’m off.
What about you?
S – Well, mine is a simple ritual, really. Finish book, email to agent and publisher, check sent box to make sure it’s sent, go to pub (in pub, check email to see if agent and/or publisher has acknowledged receipt, check sent box again, just in case…), drink beer. Drink more beer.
The End indeed. My most sincere thanks to Susi and Michael.
SJI Holliday is the author of Black Wood and Willow Walk (the Banktoun series). You can order both titles by clicking through this link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Black-Wood-SJI-Holliday/dp/1845029534/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1469751484&sr=1-3&keywords=sji+holliday
You can follow Susi Holliday on Twitter: @SJIHolliday
Or visit her website at http://sjiholliday.com/
Michael J Malone, author and poet, has a considerable back catalogue of books which you should peruse and purchase by clicking through to this link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Michael-J-Malone/e/B009WV9V4Y/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1469749528&sr=1-2-ent
Michael can be found on Twitter as: @michaelJmalone1